Harry Potter

"Harry Potter China Campaign Begins"

by Charles Hutzler (Associated Press, September 20, 2000)

BEIJING (AP) - Children across China are being primed for a revolution, this time through the bewitching world of boy wizard Harry Potter.

A publicity and printing campaign unprecedented for China began this week to introduce the globally popular Harry Potter book series to a Chinese audience. If the plan works, Harry Potter - or ``Ha-li Bo-te'' as he is known in Chinese - could be the biggest thing since Chairman Mao's little red book, and shake up the staid, preachy world of Chinese children's books.

``Children's literature in China is too earnest. Things that inspire the imagination are too few. Bringing Harry Potter to China is a kind of breakthrough,'' said Ma Ainong, one of four translators, all women, working on the series.

Shepherding the ambitious undertaking is the stately, state-owned People's Literature Publishing House. Its editors compressed into four months the translation, marketing and distribution of the first three of the four books in author J.K. Rowling's series for a planned Oct. 6 launch.

``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' ``Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'' and ``Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'' will be released as a boxed set in a first-run of 600,000 volumes - the largest first printing for a commercial release ever in China, said editor Wang Ruiqin.

Along the way, Wang and colleagues battled adversaries worthy of the dark sorcery fictional Harry and his wizard-school classmates face: nervous bureaucrats, skeptical literary critics and canny black-marketeers. The endeavor says much about China's publishing industry and its competition for readers.

People's Literature bested a dozen or so firms to become the 36th foreign publisher of Harry Potter, paying as much as $165,000 - a dear sum in China - for the Chinese rights. Wang wouldn't disclose the actual price.

To protect the investment, proofs have been guarded, special light green paper was used for printing and the boxed set's packaging has been kept secret.

Already, pirated Potters have appeared. The Beijing Youth Daily reported finding translations of all four books in a small bookstore recently. Suspiciously, the books carried the names of a translator of Taiwan's Chinese edition and the Tibet Publishing House.

``This is what I've feared all along,'' said Wang. Although the Taiwanese publisher and the Tibet company denied involvement, Wang said the pirated books forced her to consider moving up the launch date.

This week, People's Literature sent pamphlets with the first book's 12th and 17th chapters to bookstores. The China Children's News carried the 12th chapter in its Wednesday editions, distributed to nearly 1.2 million primary and secondary schools. A Web site is being prepared to entice readers, offering them wizardry graduate certificates for answering questions about the books.

All the hoopla has left critics wondering whether ``Ha-li Bo-te'' will sell to an audience raised on politically correct fare of a very different kind.

``It won't be as successful as in the West,'' said Chen Xiaomei, an editor of the Chinese Readers News. ``All this talk of sorcerers, spells and phantasms is from the Western literary tradition.''

``Chinese children like to read about beautiful, pure things. The stories are very simple, not so complicated,'' Chen said.

A small test-market audience - the children of publishing house executives - felt otherwise.

``While reading the first book, I really wanted to read the second,'' said Liu Muran, an 11-year-old sixth grader and son of People's Literature's distribution chief. ``My heart was thumping beng-beng.''

The translators and editors found much in Harry Potter that will resonate with Chinese readers. Translators drew on China's 2,500-year-old tradition of ghost stories and current pulp martial arts fiction. For Harry's magical spells, they alluded to incantations legendary kung-fu masters recited before fighting.

``This was the most relaxed and happy translation experience I ever have had,'' said Ma, the translator. She previously rendered ``Anne of Green Gables'' into Chinese, and her partners have translated ``Alice in Wonderland'' and ``The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,'' among other titles.

Trying to remain faithful to Rowling while giving her words life in Chinese, the translators hewed to their original sounds. ``Muggle'' - ordinary humans who aren't sorcerers - becomes ``ma-gua,'' playing on a Chinese idiom for stupidity. Less successful is ``Hogwarts,'' the wizardry school. ``Huo-ge-wo-ce'' carries none of the allusions of the original to either the beast or a witch's brew ingredient.

Still, all the talk about spells and incantations sent in-house government censors querying whether the books might promote the occult in the midst of the communist government's campaign against superstition and the outlawed Falun Gong sect.

``They said, 'Don't the books have to do with magic?' But we had read the books and told them it promotes the 'three goods kindness, courage and loyalty, said People's Literature editor Ye Xianlin.